With Men Still Dominating Auction Sales, Yayoi Kusama Set to Break New Record

An early painting by the Japanese artist has been estimated at USD$7–10 million ahead of a Sotheby’s sale in New York

Yayoi Kusama, Horse Play in Woodstock, a happening, 1967.

Yayoi Kusama, Horse Play in Woodstock, a happening, 1967. Courtesy: the artist

Yayoi Kusama, Horse Play in Woodstock, a happening, 1967. Courtesy: the artist

Yayoi Kusama is set for a new auction house record. Untitled (1962) is an early painting by the Japanese artist: it was included in her retrospective exhibition that toured London’s Tate Modern, the Whitney Museum in New York, and Madrid’s Reina Sofía. Now it has been given an estimate of USD$7 million to USD$10 million at Sotheby’s New York.

The work will be up for auction at Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale in New York on 16 May. If it hits the estimate, it will set a new auction record for Kusama since her piece White No. 28 (1960) went for USD$7.1 million at Christie’s, New York, in 2014. That sale made Kusama the most expensive living female artist as measured by auction sales (though she was dethroned by Cady Noland the following year).

Untitled was made soon after the artist came to New York, as the artist began experimenting with cost-free materials for her artworks: its scavenged egg cartons, upholstery stuffing and slashes of ink demonstrate Kusama’s early interest in repetitive motion. One of few examples of the artist’s ‘egg carton’ reliefs, it has been put up for sale by an ‘important private collector’, according to the auction house.

Yayoi Kusama, Untitled, 1962, cardboard egg cartons, cotton batting, oil and ink stitched to linnen, 126 x 147 x 6 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sotheby’s, New York

Yayoi Kusama, Untitled, 1962, cardboard egg cartons, cotton batting, oil and ink stitched to linnen, 126 x 147 x 6 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sotheby’s, New York

Yayoi Kusama, Untitled, 1962, cardboard egg cartons, cotton batting, oil and ink stitched to linnen, 126 x 147 x 6 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sotheby’s, New York

Speaking to frieze in 2011, Kusama described her first journey to the US: ‘I look back on all the scenery I have travelled through with fond memories. The view of the Pacific Ocean I saw from the plane on my first trip to the United States was magnificent. I was looking at it with my mind set on creating lots of works in a new city.’

Artists’s auction sales are still dominated by men, though reports indicate there is slow improvement. Anny Shaw reported last year that institutional interest in female artists was having a ‘knock-on’ effect in the market at large, with an increase in all-female commercial shows and a spate of auction records. Though as Shaw points out, just comparing auction records for a female and male artist, both deceased – Georgia O’ Keefe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1 (1932) at USD$44.4 million, a fraction of Pablo Picasso’s USD$179 million Les femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) (1955) – shows there’s a long way to go to close the gap.

Kusama is one of the world's most widely recognizable living artists known for her signature polka dot-filled installations such as her series of ‘Obliteration Rooms’ where visitors themselves cover an otherwise empty room with colourful dot stickers. Her infinity-inducing ‘Mirror Room’ series, featuring thousands of tiny flashing LED lights, have toured museums around the world. Her recent installation at the 2018 National Gallery of Victoria Triennial in Australia versioned the ‘Obliteration Room’ series with flowers, with visitors handed faux Gerbera daisies and flower stickers to place wherever they liked. Kusama opened a museum dedicated to her work in Tokyo last year, designed by Kume Sekkei. 

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